Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Sermon: "Discovering Your Ministry" (Delivered 2-1-09)

You’ve got to do when the Spirit says do! This was the title of the first hymn we sang this morning. It might also be a fitting motto for members of our faith tradition through the ages. The history of our Unitarian and Universalist forebears is a history of women and men who did when the spirit told them to do. During the 1800s, during our nation’s westward expansion, it was often Universalists and Unitarians who built the civic infrastructures of some of our nation’s great cities. In cities like St. Louis, Minneapolis, and Portland, Oregon, Universalists and Unitarians did things like start public school systems and public libraries. They founded other cultural institutions like symphonies and museums. They created parks and cemeteries. They formed the social service agencies that would serve those with disabilities and illnesses. They established world class universities and colleges. (I attended Reed College in Portland, Oregon, a college founded by Unitarians.) The spirit said, “Do.” They did.

And, while I’m on this topic, I should not fail to mention that the Universalist turned Unitarian minister Thomas Starr King played a pivotal role in keeping California with the Union during the civil war, just as Unitarians from Massachusetts swarmed to Kansas in the days leading up to the civil war, risking their own lives to keep Kansas a free state.

“Now, that is all fine and good, Thom,” you may be saying. But all that happened a century or a century and a half ago. What about today? During my final year in divinity school I spent a year apprenticing under Rev. John Buehrens, who had earlier served 8 years as President of the Unitarian Universalist Association. He fondly told a story of visiting our UU congregation in Orlando, Florida and being approached by a group of women from that congregation who made sure to let him know that Orlando was the largest metropolitan area in the country without a Planned Parenthood clinic… well, it had been until the women of this Unitarian Universalist church came together and brought one to Orlando.

This morning I want to talk about ministry. When I say “ministry,” I’m not talking about ministers who are ordained and carry the honorific title, “Reverend.” The Protestant tradition, Martin Luther spoke of the “Priesthood of all Believers.” In Protestant theology that meant that it was not up to church priests to do your religious lifting for you. Our own tradition, in the words of the theologian James Luther Adams, speaks of the “Prophethood of all Believers.” To Adams, this term meant that all members of our religious community are called upon to serve as prophet as well as priest, to live out your faith in the world. Or, in other words, I want you to discover your ministry.

This church has a three part mission statement. The first of the three parts is “To Invite.” “To invite everyone into a caring community.” It is my sense that we do really well at this. Sure, we could always do better at spreading the word, but we are a friendly church with lots and lots of truly warm-hearted people.

The second of the three parts is to inspire. “To inspire the search for spiritual growth.” We do well at this also, though there is room for improvement. In my New Years letter to the members of this church I challenged us to take it to the next level by adopting a spiritual practice.

And then there is the third part of our Trinitarian—Oops! I mean “tripartite”— mission statement, which declares it our mission to “Involve everyone is working for a peaceful, fair, and free world.” The other word for this is that it is our mission for everyone to be involved in ministry.

There are all sorts of things I could say about this. First, it is a relatively novel thing for us to declare that the mission of our church is to involve people in ministry. It is novel because for many years such a thing would have been taken for granted. Historically, those who swelled the ranks of many of our churches were the movers and shakers in the larger community. I don’t mean the wealthiest, although that was sometimes the case as well. I mean: the UU church, even a tiny one, was the place where you would encounter the NAACP board member, the volunteer ACLU lawyer, the president of this or that non-profit organization, and the benefactors of numerous others. Again, looking back to our history, I ask you to consider a short list of those who attended Theodore Parker’s 28th Congregational Society in Boston in the mid-1800s: William Lloyd Garrison (the famous abolitionist leader), Elizabeth Cady Stanton (Susan B. Anthony’s right hand woman in the fight for women’s rights), Samuel Howe (who developed cutting edge resources at his school for the blind), Julia Ward Howe (the peace activist and founder of Mother’s Day), William Nell (an African-American historian, organizer, and abolitionist), and Louisa May Alcott whose writings were forward-thinking on issues of race and gender. Talk about a who’s who of mid-19th Century shapers of culture. All attended one single church in Boston!

With changes in our larger culture over time and in civic participation within the culture at large, UU churches have changed a bit. Now, we receive people through our doors who come to us with a deep seated desire to be involved in making a meaningful change in the world but who are looking for how it is that they can make a real difference. As one of my colleagues puts it, “We have thought of ourselves as the leaven. Now we must also be the bread.”

This may explain the latest trend in church hiring. The latest trend in church hiring is to add a position known as a “Director of Equipping.” This language comes from churches that usually possess a theology different from our own. In how they understand the church, the role of the church is:
First, to be a conduit for change and transformation in a person’s life;
Second, to gift its members with the results of that change;
Third, to help its members to discern their call;
Fourth to equip its members to live out that calling;
And, fifth, to send its members forth into ministry.
Two summers ago, our board of trustees read a book by Thomas Bandy that described the church in these terms.

The famous theologian Howard Thurman said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive.” What the world needs are people who have come alive. I think of my ministry in terms of this stuff about calling, equipping, and sending. And, when I talk about sending, I don’t mean sending you away permanently. Bandy’s metaphor for the church that is doing the sending is to compare the church to a player in the game of jai-alai. In that game, players carry a scoop that is capable of hurling the ball at speeds of almost 200 miles per hour. The ball ricochets off a wall, back at the player who then uses the scoop to direct the ball. Bandy says that the church propels its members into ministry and that the evolution of our spiritual development will continually be altering the course of our ministries.

When I talk about sending, I must repeat that there are different kinds of sending. At the church I served immediately before coming here, a couple in that parish ran a non-profit called “African Baobab” that did hands on relief work in Africa. I don’t believe it is the mission of this church to send everyone to Africa, though I do believe that if that is your calling we should help to equip you and to support you in living out that calling. There is also such a thing as “sending within.”
In less than two weeks we will have the first meeting of my annual Preaching Practicum class, a class in ministry. This class prepares participants to deliver a sermon and minister to other members of this church with an inspiring sermon. Thanks to the great work of Anne Griffiths, our Intern Minister, we had our first lay ministry training a couple of weeks ago. This training taught members of the church how to minister to one another in difficult times.

And, J., one of our members, is launching a completely re-imagined stewardship ministry. Very few of us feel called to go and have a conversation with somebody else about how much they plan to pledge to the church. I hope almost everyone here would feel like it would be an important ministry to visit a couple of other members of the church and to have a deep conversation about the role your faith is playing in your life and to ask them about the role they would want for this church and their faith to play in their lives. And, if you haven’t worked with J. before, prepare to be amazed.

I hope, if you take nothing else away with you this morning that you will take with you a sense that ministry is not just something that I do. What we do in this church is ministry. When we train our members in lay preaching, lay visiting, and how to have conversations of depth with one another, that is ministry to one another. When we teach our children, that is ministry. And, it is ministry when we serve our community, when we take our values outside into the world and let them shine.

I want to close with a thought. One of my colleagues in the ministry regularly does an exercise in which he is asked to consider what it would be like if what he was doing was ten times as bold. Ten times as bold. It is that “ten times as bold” thinking that led Universalists and Unitarians to build public schools, colleges, libraries, parks, and public service programs out on the frontier. It was that “ten times as bold” attitude that led the women of Orlando to launch a chapter of Planned Parenthood in their city.

What would it look like if we decided, right here in this church, to be ten times as bold. Listen for the spirit and do when the spirit says do. Allow your senses to awaken and know that we have only scratched just the very surface of what we are capable of.

Howard Thurman said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive.” He also said, “There is something inside every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on the strings that somebody else pulls.”